Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rashomon Overdose

Akira Kurosawa and Ron Howard both make movies. They both know more about film making in their little finger than I ever will--which is an accomplishment because most people don't store knowledge in pinkies.

In 1950 Akira Kurosawa made a movie called Rashomon about a crime and the court testimony about that crime. The crime is horrific--a rape and murder--and it is recounted from four perspectives. This was groundbreaking in 1950, because the story differs significantly depending upon who's telling it. It marks the beginning of the popularization of this key insight of Postmodernism: "truth" is always mediated through the subject who perceives it, interprets it, and recounts it.

In the wake of Rashomon we've seen a change in the parameters of storytelling. It's now cool and commonplace to show the same events multiple times through different eyes. And that's the big deal with the new season of Arrested Development. Each episode follows one character or another and tells a story showing the same events with the camera focused on that character. In early episodes, there are clues that something funny or even mystical is going on. In later episodes, the reader can infer what was going on by examining the same event from another character's point of view.

This is catnip for fan boys who can stop. rewind a bit, then examine each frame at a time. After I watched the last episode I felt like going back and watching the earlier episodes again knowing what I now know to pick up the things I missed the first time around.

It's like watching A Beautiful Mind, finding out that the girl is a fig-newton of Nash's imagination, then going back to confirm that she does not disturb the birds in the yard where she's running around them.

Aside: One of the ways to tell whether a photo has been faked is to look for people's reactions to the odd thing that's been added. When a honking huge flight of Soviet jets go roaring over Red Square, someone in the crowd is going to look up. Keep that in mind when you see something remarkable on the Internet.

The fact that the entire season of Arrested Development consists of a few events that are told and retold leads me to think that Arrested Development is suffering from a Rashomon overdose. I think it works because the series has a cult-like following, and here is something that the cultists can chew on.

I also think that it does not work so well for non-cultists. You have to care about the characters before you want to see the same events rerun several times from their several perspectives. The focus on the minutiae of each character's foibles detracts from the larger scope of the story. Does it do it too much? Yes and no. I call this note "Rashomon Overdose" because I think there's a more than optimal amount of retelling from diverse perspectives. It makes some people queasy and others nauseous while others who have built up a tolerance just want more.

There is something else going on here: narrowcasting.

If you can identify a cult and write a story that its cultists will love, you can make serious money serving this niche market. Amanda Palmer broke records for Kickstarter fundraising by reaching just 35,000 enthusiasts.

Felicia Day puts the emphasis on being able to reach your audience and stories with cult-following should be easier to reach.

The Netflix-Arrested Development hook-up can be wildly successful while drawing numbers that would mean instant-cancellation on a broadcasting network like Fox. 

The key is to keep your overhead low enough that you don't spend more money than your cult can pony up.

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